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Fiction

No Familiar Faces

By Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse
Translated from French by Alison Anderson
Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse's award-winning debut novel, All Your Children, Scattered, follows a French Rwandan family grappling with the lingering trauma of the Rwandan genocide. In the excerpt below, the protagonist, Blanche, returns to Rwanda for the first time in many years.
A cobblestone street in Rwanda at sunset with a few pedestrians and motorcycle riders
Photo by Michael Muli on Unsplash

What did I think about during those first hours back in my country?

I’d landed the night before, determined to spend no more than one night in Kigali, and to ask my new friend Laura to drive me the next day to the bus station so I could head south. She was the only person I had told about my trip, because I needed somewhere to stay in the country, and because I knew she would keep it secret for me as long as necessary; she was the stranger I’d met a few months earlier at my friends’ from Bordeaux. When she had told me, in the course of a barely audible conversation, amid laughter and music, that she would be leaving the following week to work in Rwanda, I saw it as a sign. I decided that very day to buy a plane ticket, but I didn’t know yet whether I’d have the resolve to use it. Laura was in her forties, and she wore both the taciturn expression of someone who has gone to rescue hope from the darkest recesses of the human soul and an astonishingly serene smile. The next day, I had coffee with her and I told her my whole story, all in one go, something I’d never done with anyone. Why her? I don’t know. With my husband Samora I’d only shared snippets of my life, a few at a time, with extreme precaution, fearing no doubt that I’d make him flee or, worse still, make him feel sorry for me. Laura had convinced me that the reasons for my trip were well-founded. I felt ready.

Was I ready? On the flight from Brussels to Kampala, to Kigali, I spoke to no one. There were several UN agents, a Ugandan theater troupe that was on its way home from a little European tour, a few Rwandans, no familiar faces.

I listened, and kept silent, terrified.

When I left the airport, I breathed the air of the dark night, and all my tension seemed to evaporate. I hardly spoke to Laura on the road leading from Kanombe to the heights of Kigali where she lived with other humanitarians. I stared at the pockets of light the headlights of her jeep created in the darkness, on the lookout for some ghost. Trees, women, and men appeared then disappeared as if in slow motion; only the sound of the motor corresponded to the hurried beating of my heart.

The next day I awoke at dawn. I went and sat on the terrace of the house, wrapped in a blanket, to watch as the city below me roused itself, still caught in the mist rising from the valley. What had changed here? I couldn’t have said, I hardly knew Kigali. But I recognized the sounds—the turtledoves singing “sogokuru gugu! Nyogokuru gugu!”, the beating of the hummingbirds’ wings as they flew, already, above the hedge of hibiscus roses surrounding my friend’s garden. A smell of woodsmoke nearby, a motorcycle backfiring somewhere, then the voices of early risers carried on a breeze, people already on the road, greeting one another, “Ese mwaramukanye amahoro?”—“Did you wake in peace?”

So, people spoke casually of peace again, here, right from the break of day.

I took in every snatch of beauty offered to me that first early morning, fragrant with remembrance.

At lunch, Laura gave me what I wanted most—a plate of the fruits I had missed dearly: papaya, passion fruit, little bananas, plums, and Cape gooseberries. She knew I was anxious, and tried to calm me with a conversation full of complicity, telling me she’d come and get me at the end of the week to go to the lake, “You’ll have had so much emotion to deal with, it’ll do you good to go swimming at Kibuye.”

In daylight, on my way to the bus station, I devoured the city, eyes wide open.

I took the first minibus headed for Butare. I insisted on sitting in front, on the worn leatherette seat, squeezed in between the driver and his assistant, who both looked at me with amused wariness. I had the look of a Westerner fresh off the boat, with my wrinkled trousers, tourist backpack, and it didn’t tally with my fluency in Kinyarwanda, a complicated language which, to the best of their knowledge, no whites could speak without an accent, not even the old nuns who’d spent their entire careers in the hills. They did not show me the same polite reserve as the customs agent at the airport the day before. After he’d read my Rwandan name, Uwicyeza, detaching the syllables in a professorial tone of voice as if he were dictating it to someone, then my place of birth, he had said to me in Kinyarwanda, as he handed me my French passport, “Welcome, have a good trip home.” This made me feel so emotional that I murmured, “Thank you very much,” in my native language in a scarcely audible voice, but he responded with a faint smile. No one had ever greeted me like that, anywhere. There was nothing effusive about it, only the discreet assurance that I had come to the right place and had every right to be there.

I looked at the billboards recently put up to extol the country’s beauties to tourists, and I pictured myself as this dancer with her brilliant smile and her arms raised to the sky, wearing a richly colored traditional toga, or that Intore dancer with his forehead circled by a sisal wig; I was even prepared to slip into the role of the huge gorilla in his setting of mountain greenery. I was from here, I had returned, and this stranger, a cousin wearing a kepi, born no doubt in exile in one of the neighboring countries where the Tutsis had fled to escape the pogroms between 1959 and 1973, had just confirmed it to me.

***

While the driver’s assistant checked the other passengers’ tickets and showed them where they must sit, which they did without complaining—it seemed my compatriots were still just as disciplined when it came to obeying orders—he peered at me out of the corner of his eye. The minibus left right on the dot, at the time indicated on the ticket, and I thought longingly of the bush taxis I’d taken during my vacation in West Africa the previous year, which would only set off once they had the requisite number of passengers, generally long after the time initially announced by the company touts; I recalled the cries of protest and the noisy farewells on the part of the voyagers, and the lively atmosphere that reigned in the crowded vehicle on every trip I took there.

My compatriots. I’d had to go elsewhere on the continent to realize how silent, secretive, and obedient we were, even austere in some respects. I belonged to that species: while the emotion of being back in my native country made me quiver all over inside—made me feel not only like throwing my arms around every strange woman whose face reminded me of my mother’s or my aunts’ or my childhood friends’, but also like questioning every man I saw whose physique—wrongfully—made me think that he was Hutu, “What did you do, by the way, during the genocide?”—I remained mute and impassive and, in appearance, incredibly casual.

***

There were still empty seats in our minibus, and my neighbor on the right could perfectly well have gone to sit behind rather than stay beside me, but no doubt he was hoping, in this way, to glean some information about this strange crack-of-dawn female passenger. He was staring at the road, ears pricked, occasionally glancing at the half-open backpack I’d left at our feet. The carry-on luggage label of the airline I’d traveled with, Brussels Airlines, must have made him think I was Belgian. Did he not know that Air France had not flown here since 1994?

Once we’d left the Nyabugogo basin—which was beginning to get lively, requiring great vigilance on the part of the driver, not to run over the pedestrians who were walking carelessly and in great number along the paved road—he turned to me with his first question, simple but already too bold for our ancestral codes, where any sign of curiosity is held to be unseemly, “So, you’re from here?”

“Of course, I’m from here, do you think I could have learned our language this well anywhere else? I was born here and I grew up here.” I was surprised by the astonishingly serious tone I’d just adopted to say this, my voice resounding inside me, in slow motion, as if I were hearing myself down a telephone line during a storm. And I’d lowered my head, looking at my hands folded as demurely as possible in my lap. I knew, because I’d expected it so often, the next, embarrassing, question that would follow this injunction to reveal my origins—not my race as some people still put it, because you’d have to be stupid not to notice my fair, slightly frizzy hair, or the color of my skin, which was exactly midway between black and white—in order to determine where to position me on the border between Europe and Africa. No, it was the question innocently asked of so many children, “Who are your parents?” So I waited for that question with the same anxiety as before, and in my head, my rumpled thoughts were like a tired white sheet from the long night of my absence, and in its folds, I was hunting for a needle with which to resume my work of memory. But wasn’t that why I’d come back here, to stitch a comma between yesterday and tomorrow, and pick up the thread of my life? I waited. The taxi man didn’t ask the question. 


Excerpted from 
All Your Children, Scattered by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, translated by Alison Anderson. Copyright © Autrement (un département de Flammarion) Paris, 2019. Translation copyright © 2022 by Europa Editions. By arrangement with the publisher. 

English

What did I think about during those first hours back in my country?

I’d landed the night before, determined to spend no more than one night in Kigali, and to ask my new friend Laura to drive me the next day to the bus station so I could head south. She was the only person I had told about my trip, because I needed somewhere to stay in the country, and because I knew she would keep it secret for me as long as necessary; she was the stranger I’d met a few months earlier at my friends’ from Bordeaux. When she had told me, in the course of a barely audible conversation, amid laughter and music, that she would be leaving the following week to work in Rwanda, I saw it as a sign. I decided that very day to buy a plane ticket, but I didn’t know yet whether I’d have the resolve to use it. Laura was in her forties, and she wore both the taciturn expression of someone who has gone to rescue hope from the darkest recesses of the human soul and an astonishingly serene smile. The next day, I had coffee with her and I told her my whole story, all in one go, something I’d never done with anyone. Why her? I don’t know. With my husband Samora I’d only shared snippets of my life, a few at a time, with extreme precaution, fearing no doubt that I’d make him flee or, worse still, make him feel sorry for me. Laura had convinced me that the reasons for my trip were well-founded. I felt ready.

Was I ready? On the flight from Brussels to Kampala, to Kigali, I spoke to no one. There were several UN agents, a Ugandan theater troupe that was on its way home from a little European tour, a few Rwandans, no familiar faces.

I listened, and kept silent, terrified.

When I left the airport, I breathed the air of the dark night, and all my tension seemed to evaporate. I hardly spoke to Laura on the road leading from Kanombe to the heights of Kigali where she lived with other humanitarians. I stared at the pockets of light the headlights of her jeep created in the darkness, on the lookout for some ghost. Trees, women, and men appeared then disappeared as if in slow motion; only the sound of the motor corresponded to the hurried beating of my heart.

The next day I awoke at dawn. I went and sat on the terrace of the house, wrapped in a blanket, to watch as the city below me roused itself, still caught in the mist rising from the valley. What had changed here? I couldn’t have said, I hardly knew Kigali. But I recognized the sounds—the turtledoves singing “sogokuru gugu! Nyogokuru gugu!”, the beating of the hummingbirds’ wings as they flew, already, above the hedge of hibiscus roses surrounding my friend’s garden. A smell of woodsmoke nearby, a motorcycle backfiring somewhere, then the voices of early risers carried on a breeze, people already on the road, greeting one another, “Ese mwaramukanye amahoro?”—“Did you wake in peace?”

So, people spoke casually of peace again, here, right from the break of day.

I took in every snatch of beauty offered to me that first early morning, fragrant with remembrance.

At lunch, Laura gave me what I wanted most—a plate of the fruits I had missed dearly: papaya, passion fruit, little bananas, plums, and Cape gooseberries. She knew I was anxious, and tried to calm me with a conversation full of complicity, telling me she’d come and get me at the end of the week to go to the lake, “You’ll have had so much emotion to deal with, it’ll do you good to go swimming at Kibuye.”

In daylight, on my way to the bus station, I devoured the city, eyes wide open.

I took the first minibus headed for Butare. I insisted on sitting in front, on the worn leatherette seat, squeezed in between the driver and his assistant, who both looked at me with amused wariness. I had the look of a Westerner fresh off the boat, with my wrinkled trousers, tourist backpack, and it didn’t tally with my fluency in Kinyarwanda, a complicated language which, to the best of their knowledge, no whites could speak without an accent, not even the old nuns who’d spent their entire careers in the hills. They did not show me the same polite reserve as the customs agent at the airport the day before. After he’d read my Rwandan name, Uwicyeza, detaching the syllables in a professorial tone of voice as if he were dictating it to someone, then my place of birth, he had said to me in Kinyarwanda, as he handed me my French passport, “Welcome, have a good trip home.” This made me feel so emotional that I murmured, “Thank you very much,” in my native language in a scarcely audible voice, but he responded with a faint smile. No one had ever greeted me like that, anywhere. There was nothing effusive about it, only the discreet assurance that I had come to the right place and had every right to be there.

I looked at the billboards recently put up to extol the country’s beauties to tourists, and I pictured myself as this dancer with her brilliant smile and her arms raised to the sky, wearing a richly colored traditional toga, or that Intore dancer with his forehead circled by a sisal wig; I was even prepared to slip into the role of the huge gorilla in his setting of mountain greenery. I was from here, I had returned, and this stranger, a cousin wearing a kepi, born no doubt in exile in one of the neighboring countries where the Tutsis had fled to escape the pogroms between 1959 and 1973, had just confirmed it to me.

***

While the driver’s assistant checked the other passengers’ tickets and showed them where they must sit, which they did without complaining—it seemed my compatriots were still just as disciplined when it came to obeying orders—he peered at me out of the corner of his eye. The minibus left right on the dot, at the time indicated on the ticket, and I thought longingly of the bush taxis I’d taken during my vacation in West Africa the previous year, which would only set off once they had the requisite number of passengers, generally long after the time initially announced by the company touts; I recalled the cries of protest and the noisy farewells on the part of the voyagers, and the lively atmosphere that reigned in the crowded vehicle on every trip I took there.

My compatriots. I’d had to go elsewhere on the continent to realize how silent, secretive, and obedient we were, even austere in some respects. I belonged to that species: while the emotion of being back in my native country made me quiver all over inside—made me feel not only like throwing my arms around every strange woman whose face reminded me of my mother’s or my aunts’ or my childhood friends’, but also like questioning every man I saw whose physique—wrongfully—made me think that he was Hutu, “What did you do, by the way, during the genocide?”—I remained mute and impassive and, in appearance, incredibly casual.

***

There were still empty seats in our minibus, and my neighbor on the right could perfectly well have gone to sit behind rather than stay beside me, but no doubt he was hoping, in this way, to glean some information about this strange crack-of-dawn female passenger. He was staring at the road, ears pricked, occasionally glancing at the half-open backpack I’d left at our feet. The carry-on luggage label of the airline I’d traveled with, Brussels Airlines, must have made him think I was Belgian. Did he not know that Air France had not flown here since 1994?

Once we’d left the Nyabugogo basin—which was beginning to get lively, requiring great vigilance on the part of the driver, not to run over the pedestrians who were walking carelessly and in great number along the paved road—he turned to me with his first question, simple but already too bold for our ancestral codes, where any sign of curiosity is held to be unseemly, “So, you’re from here?”

“Of course, I’m from here, do you think I could have learned our language this well anywhere else? I was born here and I grew up here.” I was surprised by the astonishingly serious tone I’d just adopted to say this, my voice resounding inside me, in slow motion, as if I were hearing myself down a telephone line during a storm. And I’d lowered my head, looking at my hands folded as demurely as possible in my lap. I knew, because I’d expected it so often, the next, embarrassing, question that would follow this injunction to reveal my origins—not my race as some people still put it, because you’d have to be stupid not to notice my fair, slightly frizzy hair, or the color of my skin, which was exactly midway between black and white—in order to determine where to position me on the border between Europe and Africa. No, it was the question innocently asked of so many children, “Who are your parents?” So I waited for that question with the same anxiety as before, and in my head, my rumpled thoughts were like a tired white sheet from the long night of my absence, and in its folds, I was hunting for a needle with which to resume my work of memory. But wasn’t that why I’d come back here, to stitch a comma between yesterday and tomorrow, and pick up the thread of my life? I waited. The taxi man didn’t ask the question. 


Excerpted from 
All Your Children, Scattered by Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse, translated by Alison Anderson. Copyright © Autrement (un département de Flammarion) Paris, 2019. Translation copyright © 2022 by Europa Editions. By arrangement with the publisher. 

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